He’s worked his way up from rough beginnings to mastermind some of Berlin’s most fashionable bars. Mixology magazine’s Helmut Adam meets the anti-hero of Berlin’s bar scene, Mario Grünenfelder
The long-haired models are ‘looking without looking’. And it’s not the journalist typing away on his laptop they’re interested in. It’s the bearded guy slumped back on the couch, his green cap drawn down over his face, apparently oblivious to his environment. We’re sitting in Amano bar, the most recent success in Mario Grünenfelder’s growing hospitality empire. The bartenders are finishing their mise-en-place, and the night shift is taking over from the day shift – a good time to find out more about one of Berlin’s most successful bartenders.
Grünenfelder is one of Berlin Mitte’s secret stars. When Germans use the term ‘Mitte’ or ‘Mittig’, they’re talking about an area in Eastern Berlin that is home to some of the hippest clubs, restaurants and bars in the German capital. Mitte has become a synonym for a certain lifestyle. It stands for the rough bohemian chic of central Berlin. And the man sitting before me has become one of the key players of its booming hospitality scene.
Rebel without a cause
Grünenfelder grew up in Chur, a small city in Eastern Switzerland, where a shaky early adulthood made it almost unimaginable that he’d become an influential figure of the Berlin bar scene. As a teenager he became a drug addict and was eventually reported to the police by his own mother, who was no longer able to handle him. After several years living in youth centres, and with access to drug therapy, Grünenfelder emerged in the early 1990s with enough academic qualifications to win a place studying social education at a university in Bern.
This is what Grünenfelder had in his pocket when he came to Berlin, after having had his luggage and winter clothes stolen in Lyon, before boarding the train to Germany in December 2002. He then went into a bar to ask for a job. The bartender he met there helped him through his rough beginnings and has stayed a close friend ever since.
A drink with a funny name on Amano bar’s cocktail menu. Stefan Strumbel is an Amano regular and one of Germany’s most promising artists – his graffiti has even been featured in the shoots of Karl Lagerfeld. The drink consists of fresh figs, port, honey, citrus and freshly squeezed orange juice. Goat’s cheese, pine nuts and figs are served on the side.
Tausend bar sticks to its anti-celebrity rules – ‘No bodyguards, no Paris Hilton,’ says Grünenfelder, who did indeed once deny the heiress entry. The CEO of a beer company cancelled the pouring contract with Tausend bar after he, too, was once refused entrance. (As there was no legal reason to exit the pouring deal, the bar cashed in twice that year, simply signing up with another brand.)
However, after four terms he gave up studying and began his hospitality career by working on events in Zurich and behind the stick in clubs in Bern, before settling in Berlin, a city whose history and heritage he was fascinated by. He took on casual jobs in bars until he was offered the position of bar manager in Club Matrix in 2004, a career move that perhaps inspired a little too much confidence – a short time after investing in a small club with a couple of partners, he found himself in court: ‘We went miserably bankrupt after six months,’ he recalls. ‘After that I decided to stick to working in bars.’
His next venture was a restaurant, H.H. Müller in Berlin-Kreuzberg, before he was sought out by Duc Ngo, the owner of the successful sushi chain, Kuchi, who asked him to join his team at his upscale restaurant Shiro-i-Shiro. It was here that Grünenfelder developed a pioneering cocktail programme, laden with Asian-influenced ingredients, and a flair for developing innovative flavour pairings, such as truffled cognac spiced with pine honey, and ginger saké with sea salt. Before long, he’d gained the attention of the press.
Another key moment came in October 2007 when he opened Tausend bar for Till Harter. Starting with illegal clubs in the early 1990s, Harter ended up running some of the best-known coffee houses and bars in Berlin’s eastern districts. Tausend was the perfect place for Grünenfelder, allowing him to simultaneously make use of his club skills and culinary expertise. Hidden in the arches of Berlin’s S-Bahn train system, far away from daylight, the venue has drawn crowds of affluent and beautiful Berliners since it first opened its doors. Its success is largely due to the fact that it managed to be commercially viable while retaining that Berlin street credibility.
‘We’re underground, but at the same time we’re not’, says Grünenfelder. ‘We run a challenging beverage program, but we’re not aiming to be a classic bar.’ Tausend boasts a massive gin and bourbon selection, with cocktails designed for fast service, as the bar tends to get clubby towards the weekend. There’s also a selection of Asian-themed cocktails made with sake and shochu in a nod to the dishes served next door in the restaurant, and seasonal variations on classics such as the Gimlet. And, as Grünenfelder says with a laugh, ‘a lot of champagne’.
Even so, guests will generally find themselves stepping over garbage bags to reach the hidden door. Once inside, they are met with the sight of a polished metal ceiling which reflects the light source at the end of the room: a huge sun lamp inspired by the Norwegian artist and Berlin resident Olafur Eliasson, whose artwork, The Wheather Projekt, was the centrepiece of the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern in 2003.
Harter and Grünenfelder went on to found a consultancy business which lead to another feather in the latter’s cap – the creation of the renowned Amano Hotel bar.
‘Nobody believed this project would work’, says Grünenfelder. ‘[…] a hotel bar in Mitte, accessible for the clubbing crowd and for tourists. And the only place in Mitte without a doorman.’ But despite the doubters, the Amano bar was an instant hit when it opened in late 2009. Some great press made it so popular that guests often spilled out into the lobby (and the Amano Hotel now has one of the best occupancy quotas in Berlin).
Amano bar brought Grünenfelder to the forefront of Berlin’s consultancy business, and at present he’s to be found working on five different projects ranging from restaurants to clubs. He also recently took over a neighbourhood pub where, ironically, he was rejected from a job several years ago. Named Fellas, and situated in the Prenzlauer Berg district, this pub has now introduced a new food concept, breaking its turnover record in just a matter of weeks.
‘What I love about Fellas is its remote location’, says Grünenfelder. ‘You can have dinner without being interrupted every five minutes by people who know you.’ Clearly there are downsides to being a gastro celebrity.
Harter and Grünenfelder have also recently started dipping their toes into spirits production, prompted by the realisation that they were doing enough pouring spirits to start working without listing fees. They teamed up with boutique Berlin spirits producer Preussische Spirituosen Manufaktur and launched their own vodka brand, Greenfield & Harter vodka, which is now stocked and poured by various bars and clubs in Berlin.
That’s the spirit
‘The quality is OK and the margin beats every listing fee offered by the big corporations,’ explains a bar owner who lists the vodka. According to Grünenfelder about 5,000 bottles of Greenfield & Harter vodka were produced and sold in the first year, a response that has led him to produce a Greenfield & Harter pouring gin and an elderflower liqueur this year.
‘I’ve always been a big fan of Bombay Red, a brand I discovered during my time in Spain,’ says Grünenfelder, explaining his inspiration for the gin’s flavour profile. ‘I’ve never understood why nobody has ever imported this brand to Germany. We’ve now developed a similar recipe, but with more citrus flavour, to serve as a G&T gin.’ (Gin and tonic is the biggest-selling beverage in all of Grünenfelder’s venues.)
Some of the über-trendy Berlin venues that have benefited from the ol’ Grünenfelder magic
There is also a bar and club project in London on the horizon – the details remain a secret but it looks set to work on a members’ club model. Grünenfelder has already visited the site of the venue and is waiting for the licensing issues to be sorted by the city council: ‘Berlin and Barcelona have a very similar vibe; there are lots of connections. But I’m wondering why there’s not more exchange between London and Berlin. I see huge opportunity there,’ he muses.
Asked what he loves most about his job, Grünenfelder cites the contact he has with artists and architects. ‘My work feels like I’m helping to build the city,’ he says. ‘It feels like you’re leaving little traces in history. They’re small, but vital traces and they produce a lot of joy.’
It’s only natural that Grünenfelder, who took his first vacation in years last summer, sees no separation between his working and private life. ‘I have a life, not a job,’ he says, before he gets up to leave, briefly stopping to acknowledge the girls on the next table.